Time to get stoked about vision!
This blog post is for the dancers who have been told not to look down at the floor so much. Why is that so dang hard not do do, eh?
This is also a blog post for the dancers who have trouble spotting turns, balancing (in general), and generally projecting a focused gaze while performing.
Today we’re going to talk about eyes, vision, movement, and how becoming aware of and optimizing these things can impact your dancing (and yo’ life).
Vision: It’s a big deal.
In dance it is important for position sensing, movement quality, and artistic expression.
This is something I’ve always kind of known, but it wasn’t until LAST WEEK that I truly experienced it. In a ballet class, I was able to keep my head level, my eyes on the horizon, and I could balance, which never happens. And it was mind-bendingly effortless.
For you dancers who have been told to keep your eyes off the floor (hell, I know you have), have you ever wondered why it’s such a hard habit to break?
Let’s break down looking down
The ability to hold a steady gaze on the horizon (or wherever you choose) and to keep an audience captive through your eyes is related in part to biomechanics, part autonomic nervous system function, and I will argue for dancers, part artistic expression and desire to communicate.
I have a few theories about looking down:
– It’s a learned behaviour that we use to cope with something. Something neuro. Something physical. Something from our past. Who knows, but it’s helping us to “survive” the moment.
– Lack of confidence: in one’s abilities as a dancer/artist, or an unconscious lack of confidence in their body to perform.
– Looking down helps to ground us when we don’t feel grounded.
– Being stuck in extension or compression of the cervical spine affects balance (which also influences where the eyes can go)
I suppose we could lump these into two groups: 1. How the nervous system relates to vision and 2. How biomechanics of human movement relate to vision.
From here, this blog post is going to get a bit technical, so here’s the summary:
Ability to keep eyes on the horizon= Happy brain= Happy body= Unlocked potential to dance your pants off.
Your Brain Likes When Your Eyes Have Options
A few of your nervous system’s favourite things:
- Eyes on the horizon
- Wide field of vision (good use of peripheral vision)
- Ability to use central vision (seeing what is in front of you)
So, much like your body is on the perpetual quest for the holy grail we call center, your eyes dig being “centered” too.
Centered doesn’t mean “stuck” in the middle (which can be a conundrum in itself), but means to have full access to each end of the spectrum. We can only understand what center feels like through our experience of the extremes. Through having options.
So, your eyes need to see all the way left and right (horizontal field of vision), and they need to be able to access all the way up and down (vertical field of vision). Our eyes can lose this movement variability due to:
- Increased use of central vision (staring straight ahead at a screen)
- Habitual patterns of moving (eye movement pairs with the rest of your body’s movement)
- Trauma and injuries
Your nervous system loves having a full field of vision because evolutionarily speaking, this gives you a better ability to scan the horizon, the ground, and the sky for potential predators and threats.
With a full field on vertical vision you can also sense where the ground is. This is super important for feeling “grounded” and for the requisite input for your body to ambulate (and do cool dance moves) without looking down.
Let’s take this further (because that’s how I roll)… A full field of vision is correlated to a more parasympathetic resting state, connecting eye function to the important neural circuit that allows us to experience health, growth, and restoration (so, like, the ability to get good at dance and recover from soreness and injuries).
Now let’s try to connect this vision/nervous system stuff to how your body moves in natural gait.
Gait Mechanics and Vision
Your eyes have a role in gait? Try walking with your eyes closed…
Every part of our body has a particular, important action, in all three planes, at any particular point in time as reaction to each phase of gait. Even your eyes.
When we walk, we (ideally) keep our skull leveled on the horizon and our bodies move around it.
Kind of like the owl:
Taking that idea further, as we walk, and we keep our eyes level on the horizon, our skull moves around them.
Let’s break that down some more.
What happens through your spine, skull, and eyes in gait (sagittal plane edition):
– As you move into lumbar and thoracic extension (shock absorption phase), the cervical spine opposes into flexion (decompression), and eyes oppose with a relative upwards focus.
-As you move into lumbar and thoracic flexion (mid-stance through heel-strike phases), the cervical spine opposes into extension (compression), and the eyes oppose with a relative downward focus.
The image below represents these opposing movements nicely:
AiM-azing sketch by Caroline Williams, a fellow Anatomy in Motion student/practitioner.
Notice how the visual focus and the skull stay relatively still, but the movement of the body around it gives the sense that they are changing positions. Tricky, eh!?
NOTE: We could a lot about feet here and their role in gait, but for now, let’s leave it at: Eyes going relative down couples with rearfoot supination and dorsiflexion; eyes looking relative up couples with rearfoot pronation and plantar flexion. That’s for another day, another blog post, perhaps, but I would be remiss not to mention how feet have the potential to interact with vision.
I encourage you to try it out now and see if you can feel these motions happening in your own body as you walk.
If you can’t feel it while walking, try it lying on your back on the floor. Look at a point on the ceiling, and move your spine through flexion and extension (my eyes are closed ’cause I was getting really into it). Credit to Gary Ward of Anatomy in Motion. Cogs are my fave.
I hope you can appreciate how the movement of the neck opposes the movement of the rest of your spine with the eyes staying level on the horizon. This happens during gait, sagittaly speaking.
These opposing actions of your eyes, skull, neck, lumbar and thoracic spine happen with each step you take, within 0.6-0.8 seconds.
Except sometimes they don’t. Damn!
We lose this opposition when we learn different ways of moving through experiences of trauma, injuries, or habitual “unnatural” patterns *coughdancecough* that never get the chance to unwind.
And yes, the neck compresses AND decompresses as you walk (and interestingly spends more phases in compression than decompression). Let’s be clear: Compression isn’t bad, but it can become problematic if you get stuck there. Your body needs the option to do both.
Let’s use a common dancer-thang as an example and make this super simple (stupid).
Something I see quite commonly in dancers is:
a) Lumbar and thoracic spine unable to fully flex (unable to decompress through gait), combined with…
b) Cervical spine that has wayyy too much extension (unable to decompress through gait).
- Spending a lot of time back-bending…
- Trauma, like whiplash (possibly dance-induced…), neck/head injuries, falling hard on your tailbone, etc.
- High sympathetic tone- aka, just stressed the heck out!- which tends to show iteself through the extensor chain (tight hamstrings, neck, and lower back much?)
- Simply spending too much time using central vision with a weird neck position from looking at computer screens and smart phones (over-optimized central vision can reduce your ability to use peripheral vision which, as you now know, is kind of a big deal).
What’s this got to do with keeping your eyes centered?
If you are like the dancer outlined above, maybe you stay compressed as you walk and dance (which is just a fancy expression of gait, isn’t it?), never entering flexion or decompression, and this will present you with several challenges:
1. Eyes stuck in a relative down position. Remember, in gait, the eyes go relatively downwards when the neck is extended (or extendING). If you are like the example above and are stuck extenDED, then you may also be stuck with eyes that feel more comfortable settling down at the ground. So to get your eyes up, you need to extend your neck more, compress more, and this might not feel so great, not to mention…
2. Trying to cope with the above to get your eyes to lift takes some seriously, energy expending, creative strategies (I will not use the D word: d***unction).
Do you think it feels good to lift your chin up from of a position wherein the chin is already up, chronically? Hell no.
To create the sensation of neck extension in an attempt to lift the eyes (because it can’t flex well, which would allow the eyes to lift), it needs to first flex a bit to get OUT of the extended position.
In my books, this is way too much work, not to mention can exacerbate compression and limit neck range of motion in all three planes, not just the down-up.
So with all this work to get around compression, extension, and stress, the path of least resistance is simply to let the eyes go down to the ground. Things feel safer there. And easier. The happy place. Ahhh.
What do you do about it?
Long story short:
- Teach your spine/neck how to flex and/or decompress to allow your eyes to reflexively lift
- Reduce stress in your life so that you can let go of chronic extensor chain tone. Breathing helps.
- Get appropriate rehab to unwind injuries
- Go look at actual things in the real world that aren’t on a screen and use your peripheral vision
It might be more complex than that (because this is just sagittal plane edition…), but I like simple.
How The Heck Does This Relates to Dance?
What’s the visual system go to do with physical performance? Visual input affects sensorimotor systems, so it affects your ability to perceive where you are in space and how you move. Kind of a big deal for you sensing, moving machines.
Ever wonder why your brain seems to freak out whenever you set up for a pirouette? (speaking for myself anyway, but please tell me I’m not the only one!)
The ability to keep your eyes level on the horizon, in gait, and in dance, is related to:
- Ability to sense the floor via peripheral vision (so not needing to look down at it)
- Ability to be return to a parasympathetic state and recover from training and injuries (also correlated to good peripheral vision and vagal tone)
- Reduced strain on all things MSK through improved movement variability (ability to compress AND decompress, flex AND extend, blah blah blah).
- Ability to spot a turn better (because you can actually center your eyes!)
- Balance, your body having heightened position sensing as your skull stays level and your body moves around it, which is particularly evident in a slow adage.
Ahhh that Svetlana!
So to be able to walk, keeping your eyes off the ground, is a cool measure to check in with as it can revealing of your physiological and nervous system states. A few years ago, I couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without my eyes dropping to the ground. This became an outcome measure I tracked, and it was very revealing.
The ability for your eyes to a) find center, b) leave center, and c) experience a full field of vision also relates to your body’s ability to to do the same: Find and leave center and experience full ranges of motion.
Having these options makes it possible to:
Project to an audience
This is the tip of the iceberg. But I hope to have connected some dots between the inability to keep your eyes off the floor and how it is represented in your body, globally.
Not my foot, guys. Mine are prettier 😉
Call me a slow, but I learned this weekend that taking care of blisters is kind of a big deal.
An infected blister can land you in the hospital.
I’m writing this after having spent three days off my feet because of a silly little blister (although the emerg doctor said something along the lines of, “wow… I’ve never seen a blister like that before”. Real reassuring, doc).
I find this story a little embarrassing to tell, but I’ll tell it anyway (in part because I like talking about myself, and in part spare you from making choices as foolish as mine). I’m even sad to say that this blister story isn’t even directly related to dance.
Aside from the obvious foot-care lessons you’ll take away from my story, I hope you’ll also appreciate the less obvious, but highly relevant, lessons revealing of our often misguided, illogical reasoning as dancers, and the strange choices it causes us to make.
Minor foot-wounds can escalate in non-linear ways
I remember a dancer once telling me she got a blood infection after a modern dance intensive because of bacteria she picked up through a cut in her foot. Some of us are susceptible to those nasty slits where the toe and foot meet, for which there is no real effective tape-job.
When I think of all the times that I’ve danced barefoot on floors spattered with other dancers’ sweat, and sometimes blood, with splits under each toe, and did not get a staff infection, I realize that chance played a pretty significant role in my recent foot episode.
Dancers get a lot of blisters and foot wounds. Never once have I thought twice about taking care of them. Maybe that’s just me. My laxity about hygiene resembles that of my iliofemoral ligament.
I’ve even used duct tape on blisters, leaving it on for a few days until it finally came off in the shower. Definitely don’t do that, guys.
I’m reading the book “Fooled by Randomness” By Nassim Nicholas Taleb (strongly recommend).
The main theme of this book is that we need to be taking into account the randomness of situations as well as the other factors such as the who, what, when, where and how. Why? Because there will always be the “rare event”. The one we don’t expect to happen. The one that seems random because nothing has ever happened like it before.
Of COURSE we can’t predict things to happen that have never happened before. That doesn’t mean the possibility of them happening to you is nil.
For example, we can put in all the hard work for a performance, have it down perfectly, but then slip and fall on a slick patch: The rare catastrophic event. That’s never happened before! That was totally random!
Knowing that randomness dictates a portion of our lives in this way, regardless of how prepared or informed we are, we can choose to cushion our decisions to ensure that if something bad does happen, it won’t be the worst case scenario. We’ll be ok.
It won’t end in a trip to the hospital…
Today’s example, you get a blister. That really sucks. What sucks more is knowing that there is a small chance that the blister can get infected, which can get into your blood and lymph, and send you to the hospital.
It’s a small chance. But you need to pad yourself against that small chance because life can be random like that.
And to entertain the 8 of you who will read this all the way through here’s what happened:
What can happen to an infected blister in 24 hours or less
(You can skip this narrative and go to the conclusions if you’d prefer to save time)
I walk a lot. Walking became an important part of my life the day after my hamstring injury when I promised myself internally that I would never take my legs for granted.
Apparently though, I still do.
I wear out shoes really quickly, which then start to poke my heels and give me blisters, and which I tend to ignore. I was limping, but was running late and had to get to work on time, so I kept walking. Priorities.
Something in my inner thigh started to hurt, which I assumed was my adductor acting up because of my altered limpy gait pattern: Hip hiking, avoiding pronating the foot, and I’ve strained that adductor before. Made sense to me, but I kept walking anyway.
Over the course of the next 6 hours at work, the blister puffed up to the point where it hurt to put my shoes back on. But I did anyway.
I went home thinking, “I be damned if I let this annoying little blister prevent me from walking to work tomorrow”.
Then, nearly the moment I arrived home, the weird symptoms started. My fingers on my right hand went white and numb (think Reynaud’s-like). My vision went blurry, it was harder to breathe, my heart rate was way up, I felt feverish, dizzy, was shivering to the point that my teeth were literally chattering, and I couldn’t think straight. I was cooking dinner but I couldn’t feel the knife in my hands or see what I was chopping clearly.
So I took a half-hour hot shower, and was in bed by 9pm thinking I was having an allergic reaction to the cold (it was -40 degrees that day).
I woke up the next day feeling equally gross, and my blister had grown and looked to be red, puffy, and infected. My inner thigh was even more tender, and not in a muscle soreness type of way. But I went to work anyway (are you noticing a trend?).
I had a workshop to teach and sure as hell was not going to let a little fever and a blister stop me from hanging out with my students
It soon became obvious to myself and my partner, based on the fact that being vertical was a challenge, that I was unfit to teach. Then, another friend of ours, a chiropractor, came in to check me out. Her conclusion was “That shit is infected and your whole lymph line is blocked and inflamed. You should go to the hospital”.
That blister escalated quickly in less than 24 hours. The sore “adductor” was a lymph node in my groin.
Then, as I was walking the 20 feet or so to the exit, to get into my friend’s car and head to the hospital I started to black out. I have a little history of fainting, so I knew what was happening and was able to collapse to the floor with relative control, and was also fortunate to be in a room full of 30 odd chiropractors, physios, massage therapists, who were there for an NKT level 1 seminar.
I am now the girl who left NKT in an ambulance.
In the ambulance, speaking with the paramedic, I lost nearly all my faith in the medical system. Her conclusion: “Sounds like the blister is totally unrelated to your fever and fainting, and you probably had an anxiety attack. You can get therapy for that”.
At the hospital, the same paramedic emphasized at triage that I had an undiagnosed history of anxiety attacks. I am amazed at how little medical professionals truly listen. Listening is a skill I am working on, personally, and to her credit, say she has inspired me to further cultivate it.
Note to self: NEVER again tell a medical professional you’ve experienced “anxiety”. Of course I’ve been anxious before! Hasn’t every human being felt anxious? As a performer I’ve felt anxious waiting in the wings to go on stage to the point where I think I’m going to pee my pants. But I do not have an anxiety disorder. Please don’t put words in my mouth and overlook what’s really happening to me.
The doctor finally checked me out. His conclusions “Doesn’t look infected. I think the fainting is unrelated. So is the fever. Why exactly are you even here?”
I wanted to cry out of frustration.
I had to ask him to please palpate the swollen and warm lymph nodes in my leg. I had to talk him into considering that the blister could be infected (it was). I had to question him until he speculated that I might need anti-biotics (I did) and whether he should drain the blister (he did, eventually).
I can’t believe I was that close to being sent home with no action, and no answers. A reminder to always advocate for your own health.
Doctors see so many people in a day. It’s not their fault and we can’t blame them for doing their best on a given day. The system isn’t perfect and I was a less urgent case. I can appreciate that and am grateful that in Canada I can receive care without having to pay big money.
I do feel very fortunate to have received advice before heading to the hospital, from several people that I respect and trust more that any doctor. Their words allowed me to stand up for my health and ask questions to receive the treatment I needed.
Finally, the doctor opened the blister to drain it and bandage me up. “Oh, look at that, it is infected. That certainly explains the lymph node inflammation. I’m going to prescribe you some antibiotics”.
Now, having spent three days off my feet, I can finally appreciate this foot-care thing.
Some people say these things happen for a reason. To teach us a lesson, or something. I don’t think there is implicit meaning in this, or that anything happens for a specific reason, but I do feel that circumstances like this make for excellent opportunities to reflect and learn.
I realize that i was misinterpreting my resolution years ago to not take having legs for granted.I was still ignoring signs to slow down, this time under the guise of “if I stop it shows I don’t appreciate what my body can do”. Instead of becoming more mindful, as intended, I was reverting to old patterns of over-use under the illusion of appreciation. A fine line.
I realize that I need to stock my bag with band-aids, and that even if I “don’t have time” to stop to pick up first aid supplies in my rush to work, people will be understanding of my need to take care of myself. Something I also didn’t do very well as a dancer.
I realize that a surface wound can affect motor control and cognitive function. Being off my feet without a healthy dose of movement. An altered gait pattern. A feeling of lethargy that drains the ability to think clearly. I could feel my shoulders tightening in an attempt to ground me, as my feet didn’t have their same ability to get feedback from the floor.
I realize that we must stand up for ourselves when we find ourselves in the care of medical professionals who will not listen or see the full picture. Be an advocate for your health.
I realize that by not taking care of myself I let other people down, being unable to teach that day, and missing a few days of work. We do this as dancers, too.
I recently read the biographies of two dancers: Kenny Pearl (who was a teacher of mine) and Misty Copeland (who is awesome).
Their stories have this one thing in common: Both Copeland and Pearl danced through injuries when they knew they shouldn’t have, but they did it because they didn’t want to let people down- The people who believed in them, their choreographers and employers, and especially themselves.
Misty danced an important performance with 6 tibial stress fractures. Kenny constantly picked up the slack for other injured dancers, filling in for them on tour, picking up extra performances, until his knees finally gave out on stage.
This blister incident of mine… It’s that same thing we do as dancers. We’d rather take a huge risk with our bodies and our careers than take care of our basic needs.
This theme shows up often in my life, and I know I am not alone (please tell me I’m not alone!).
So, this is not a blog post about foot-care for dancers. It’s a call to think critically and not be an idiot about these things (although incidents like this can create really great space to reflect and think critically about our choices).
We think that we have no choice- Either we sacrifice our bodies or we let people down, but this is false because we wind up letting people down to an even greater degree if we sacrifice our bodies.
This is a blog post about being fooled by randomness (just read the book!). This was a freak, random incident. Historically, I should have been totally fine. Be aware of possible outcomes, especially the rarest, highest risk outcomes, that we don’t think will happen, and make appropriate choices.
And to leave you with one piece of foot-care: Always put band-aids on blisters. But you already knew that.
What once hurt us must also heal us…
This can be difficult to believe, but one side of the coin cannot exist without the other. Heads and tails are a package deal.
We can get stuck in this mindset that if something hurts us, then it must be bad, and that we should avoid it forever.
When we have a negative experience with something, our brain remembers, and, beyond all logical reasoning, will tell us to avoid going there again.
Like playing on the monkey bars. It can be kind of painful on the hands at first. There is a risk of falling so the brain says “Hmm…Nope. Not going there.” This is why I avoided monkey bars my whole life and even today can’t swing from one arm to the other (2016 goal…).
This avoidance of what feels “bad” makes sense. Evolutionarily, if something has caused us harm, in the future we will avoid it to stay safe from danger. Life-threatening danger. Present day, life-threatening situations are relatively rare, and what is “harmful” is less clear.
Monkey bars are hardly a threat, but my perception of their danger is enough to make me go sympathetic.
This can happen with dance. Our relationship with it will change over the course of our careers. That is how it is, as it is with all things. Change: The one thing we can count on.
We can become injured from too many hours dancing with too little recovery, without strategies to cope with physical duress, fueled by a passion that burns so strong that we are able to tune out the important messages our bodies send us to “cool it”.
On stage, nothing hurts. That’s the power of our minds. Some parts of the brain that process pain are also responsible for movement. “If I can keep performing, I will feel no pain, and everything is ok.” On stage, we’re invincible.
Dance is healing in this way.
Dance can be an escape from everything “out there”. No one can touch you, and you feel your most “you”. There is no pain when you perform. You might need pain-killers to get on stage, but you don’t remember you needed them until you exit the wings and come back to reality, and even then, it feels worth it.
But everything that heals us can also harm us, as everything that harms us can heal us, too. The determining factor is our intention.
What differentiates healing dance from harming dance is why we are dancing and for whom. This “why” and “who” relationship can change without our noticing but makes all the difference in the outcome.
Dance began as a healing outlet for me. I’m an introvert. Have been since my first memory of being alive. Dance allowed me to escape from the world and be with myself, in my body, where things made sense without the noise from my conscious mind.
And then, my intention changed. When I began to take my dance career seriously I became afraid of not being good enough. I was ashamed of my body and wished I could trade mine for that of someone else. I wanted to move like someone else, not like me. I didn’t think being “just me” would get me hired.
I was not content to dance like “me” so I tried to dance how other people expected me to dance. My “for whom” changed.
I forced things past my limit to fit a mold. I over stretched. Ignored important signals of pain; my body pleading with me to take it easy and make time to recover. I lost sight of my “why”.
This was no longer healing, and it caught up to me. A few injuries later, I had to stop. If we can’t change and slow down on our own accord, “something” will force us to. The universe has a way of giving us exactly what we need, whether we like it or not.
I sure had it coming.
After this, I was afraid to go back to dance. I felt betrayed. What I had once loved and helped me cope with life had hurt me. How could dance betray me like this? I became quite bitter, as one could expect, mourning the loss of a major part of my identity (just read some of my earlier writing… It came from an entirely different place).
But an important question: Can you blame the movement for injuring the mover? Does a movement have an intention to harm? No. The movement comes from you. You set the intention, whether you’re aware of it or not.
We can’t blame dance for our injuries, we can only blame ourselves for not noticing when our relationship with it changes. Neglecting to tune in. Forgetting that we dance because it makes us feel more like “ourselves”, after too many hours spent practicing trying move like someone else.
The betrayal I felt existed only in my mind. Dance had not betrayed me, I had betrayed myself by failing to listen. I had changed my intention, and so the effect the movement had on me changed, too. Unsure what I had to offer the world other than to dance, I did my best to ignore the signs that I needed to stop.
What had once healed, now harmed me.
A few weeks post-hamstring injury. Dissociating. Sympathetic. Should be resting… Can you tell?
But this is incredible because it is proof that our relationship with dance is capable of change. In fact, the only way to complete the healing process from such a “betrayal” is to face the beast head on: Can I dance again, and can it heal, again?
The answer is undeniably yes.
How long will it take? That’s up to you. But it isn’t, either. It will take the time it needs to take. No more, and no less. Your best dancing days could be in your 40s, or they could be next week.
What is most scary is losing a large piece of our identity. Who are we now that we can’t dance? Now that we have nothing that makes us feel invincible? Now that we must face our pain with no admirable vessel to dissociate from it?
But dance will always be there for us. Dance will always be the same. We can always come back, years later, and realize that first position is still first position. What makes it feel different on any given day of the week is our intention.
We can choose to dance with the intention of honesty and self-respect.
We can choose to drop our expectation that dance should feel the same as it did “before” injury, not that it will feel worse, but it will feel different, possibly even better than before (and trust me, this is absolutely true).
We can, and must accept that our relationship with dance will change.
We choose to heal, or we choose to hurt. When we are able to return to that which hurt us and find that it heals, our journey has come full circle.
When I returned to dance, my intention had to change. I didn’t realize this at first, and it is part of the reason why it took me fours years to fully recover. In the early stages of healing, I attempted to return to dance still thinking that I needed to look a certain way and it didn’t feel “right”. I needed more time, more space to reflect on my relationship with it.
Now, I look for moments in ballet class that can heal me. Moments of humanity. Moments of honesty. I respect my limits. I focus on how good it feels to move. My body feels better after a class than before. My muscles feel like they’ve worked, but I don’t ache for days. And most importantly, I don’t give one F*** what people think of how I look.
Though I am sorry for what I put my body through, I know that it forgives me for not listening. I can laugh at my mistakes. I am thankful for the injuries that taught me how to heal and help others through their own healing process. And I love my body for what it can do, not for how it looks doing it.
My final, top three suggestions on how to live a long life, dancing:
Be aware that your relationship with dance will change. Not better, not worse, just different.
Keep sight of who you’re dancing for, and why.
Love how it feels to move when you look like YOU dancing.
Here we go again… Monika rants about “core training”. Some more.
Can you blame me? It’s like the universe wants me to talk about it.
A few weeks ago was invited to lead a core training workshop with a group of dancers at York University. Here’s a little clip for ya:
And just last weekend I was invited on the Eat Well Move Well podcast with Galina and Roland Denzel (two incredible people, wow!), who caught me off guard by stating that I had an interesting way of approaching the core strength idea.
This surprised me because I definitely do not have any new or ideas on the topic. I’m just doing my best to reiterate what the most influential people I’ve had the honour of learning from have taught me in a language that makes sense to myself, my clients, and hopefully to you.
My thoughts on core training are not new, and not that interesting. But for the dance world, I guess they can seem unconventional.
The “core”, much like the Earth, has been around and doing just fine long before we naively intervened and labeled it “core”; it was probably doing better for itself (and for us!) before we tried to systematize, aestheticize, and control it’s training.
I feel uneasy about adding more “new” stuff to this information-cluttered internet-thing we’re addicted to getting answers from, but it hurts me more to see people doing silly things with their bodies *coughtraceyandersoncough* in an ignorant, tone-oriented, sympathetic-driven haze, for the sake of “core strength” and a six pack.
Let’s clear some of that haze, eh?
Here are some of the supposedly “unconventional” ideas on core training I hold that are actually anything but unconventional- They’re quite sensible.
WHAT IS “CORE TRAINING”?
And the reason I feel it is even necessary to write this is because every single dang dancer ever in their career will hear from a teacher that they need a “stronger core”. I’ve yet to meet a dancer who hasn’t.
Core training goes beyond concentrically working the muscles we are commonly taught need to be strengthened and toned.
My approach is guided by five key principles. If you understand these principles and base your training around them, it really doesn’t matter what exercises you choose (for the most part…).
1. Know your anatomy: Understand the intrinsic and extrinsic core subsystems and their roles.
2. Breathing: Learn to create intra-abdominal pressure and load core musculature through your breath.
3. Mobility: Recognize and appraise the need for mobility as a prerequisite for training stability.
4. Remove roadblocks for reactive core: Become aware of compensatory patterns that could be limiting effortless core connectivity.
5. Semantics: Place importance on the words used to describe training, which matter just as much as the physical training.
These principles matter more than the exercises you use.
Let’s go into these in a bit more detail.
1. THOUGHTS ON CORE FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY
It is kind of important to have at least a little bit of understanding of which muscles we’re talking about. Kind of. What’s more important is to FEEL them.
Today my colleague Wensy Wong, kinesiologist and massage therapist, ie has MAJOR anatomy knowledge, told me that it wasn’t until just recently she really understood the psoas, because finally she could feel it. Knowing where a muscle is in a textbook, in 2D, is one thing, feeling it in your body is completely different. You have to experience it to know it.
You can’t say that you know someone personally because you read their autobiography and stalk them on the internet.
Anyway, some anatomy.
The core is more than just the muscles of your trunk and your abs. Think of the core as a hierarchical system of units.
Intrinsic core musculature (inner unit): Deeper muscles, not responsible for creating large movements, but hold “stuff” together.
- Transverse abdominis (TVA)
- Pelvic floor
- Internal obliques
- Lower erector spinae
Extrinsic core musculature (outer unit): More superficial muscles, important in larger movements.
- Rectus abdominis
- External obliques
- Upper erector spinae
- Psoas major
- Quadratus lumborum
Understand that in the hierarchy of the core system, intrinsic subsystem function is most fundamental.
We’d like to see these two systems in balance, performing their proper roles: The instrinsic system holding stuff together and providing adequate intra-abdominal pressure and proprioception (position sensing) so that the extrinsic core can allow us to move freely.
It is possible for all or part of the intrinsic core unit to become relied upon excessively for movement rather than the extrinsic core, and visa versa. Sometimes, one part of the intrinsic unit will be working harder than another in an attempt to find a sense of grounding, counter-balance, or irradiation to increase muscle contractile strength (examples of this coming up a bit further down…).
This should, ideally, be cleaned up and re-trained before performing a more complex, high-threshold exercise. Even a plank can get messy if this system isn’t balanced.
2. BREATH CONTROL = CORE CONTROL
This really should not be considered unconventional. Many people claim to “know” that breathing is important for core connectivity. We hear it every dang day as dancers, yogis, pilates-ers (what’s the plural for a pilates enthusiast?).
So if you really “know” it, then why aren’t you working on it? Why aren’t you teaching it? Why haven’t you made progress with “core strength”? Telling students to breathe isn’t the same as coaching them on how to breathe for core connectivity.
Remember that to know is to have had experienced it. Do you really know how breathing affects core connectivity? Have you ever felt that connection?
This is tricky. It’s something that often requires coaching. Get on that. It’s totally worth it.
The breath allows you to create an “airbag for your spine”, to load core musculature, and create a safe space mentally for you to train, adapt, and recover.
Creating intra-abdominal pressure: Air pressure in the abdominal cavity prevents excessive movement in the spine- dictated by our breathing. Using “umbrella”-style inhalations (360 degree expansion) to fill out the abdominal cavity evenly creates an “air bag” to cushion the spine as it moves freely, allowing muscles to load as a response.
Coupling solid intra-abdominal pressure with an abdominal contraction (by holding the breath in and contracting the abs) is called bracing, and is useful under heavy load. However, this isn’t how you want to get stuck. Life doesn’t always need to be a heavy load, high intensity ordeal… Unless you’re on a reality TV show.
Eccentric and concentric loading: Inhalation, is required for eccentric loading (lengthening) of the abdominal muscles as the abdomen expands. A muscle first needs to be able to lengthen to be contracted effectively, and an 360 degree inhalation does just that.
A full exhalation concentrically contracts the abs and gives us Zone of Apposition (ZOA) with the ribcage depressed. This position allows for a more ideal use of both intrinsic and extrinsic core muscles, because joint position dictates muscle reaction.
||Concentric contraction (shortening)
||Eccentric contraction (lengthening)
||Concentric contraction (shortening)
Autonomic nervous system state: Exhalations bring the nervous system to a safe state of growth, recovery, and flow, where learning and change is possible, by activating the vagus nerve. This state- parasympathetic (opposite of fight/flight), is a state where you should ideally approach training from if you actually want to improve.
So you can do 500 stress-crunches while you hold your breath and grind your teeth. I. Don’t. Care.
3. CORE MOBILITY
All we talk about as an industry (both in dance and fitness) is core stability, being in control, and preventing movement but, consider this: Your spine has 33 joints- It was designed for effortless movement!
Things that are chunks, or planks, or blocks were designed to be rigid by nature of their structure. Things that are designed to have many small parts and joints are naturally intended to allow movement.
So would we train our spines for stability before considering its innate need to move? And I don’t blame you. I was that idiot-trainer making my clients do planks, preaching the value of “stability”, before appraising their spinal mobility. Don’t be idiot-me. You’re better than that.
Consider these four ways that your core craves mobility:
Spinal stability vs. spinal mobility: Preventing the spine from moving by stiffening is useful at times, but full potential for movement of the spine is prerequisite for stability. How long and fast could you ride a bike with a rusty chain and jammed links? Your spine, like a bike chain, needs to have the potential to allow movement at all segments. Appraise the spine’s need for mobility before giving it a stability solution.
Courtesy of Gary Ward, here’s one of my favourite spinal mobility experiences right now- Cogs:
First joints act, then muscles react (to movement): Movement of the skeleton dictates muscle (re)action. The goal is not to forcefully activate and and consciously engage the core, but to allow it to reflexively fire as a reaction to movement. So movement of the spine and pelvis, to which “core” musculature attaches, is necessary for the muscles to load and contract.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: Like a slingshot, muscles “load to explode”. Training only concentrically by shortening muscles to create movement (think crunches) does not replicate this natural function. Excessive “tone-seeking”, thus, can prevent lengthening, reducing mobility and reactivity, and limiting performance. Concentric work is useful, but length needs to be created before you can earn the right to shorten.
Management of base of support within center of mass: How much movement can your center of mass access within your base of support? How far can you shift without moving your feet before you fall or need to take a step? Core muscles react as the body moves away from and back towards center.
When we keep things “tight” constantly it doesn’t allow this natural movement in and out of our base of support. Finding “center” therefore, is more a result of experiencing a full spectrum of movement, not of keeping things tight.
4. REMOVING ROADBLOCKS: COMMON CORE COMPENSATIONS
Remember above I mentioned there are ways the core systems can become out of balance? This can happen be due to trauma, injury, habitual ways of holding our bodies, or repetitive patterns of moving. These roadblocks can prevent our bodies from accessing joint movements and positions.
Many of us unconsciously develop strategies to get around these roadblocks. These “compensations” are not bad. THANK your body for finding these clever strategies and allowing you to continue to move and live. Know that they aren’t serving you anymore, address them head on, and find a new way through them, not around.
Here are some common road-blocks for dancers (and most humans):
- Breath-holding: Can cause diaphragm to be used more as a muscle of stabilization (due to it’s connection to the spine) than respiration, influencing spine/ribcage position, movement potential, and ability to recover from training.
- Jaw clenching/shifting: An attempt for proprioception, counterbalance, co-contraction, or a response to stress and strain and is commonly found to be facilitated in relation to abdominal function.As Dr. Kathy Dooley explains HERE:
Because the TMJ has more proprioception per surface area than any other joint in the human body, you will go where your jaw shifts you to go…When the jaw shifts, the center of mass shifts. This will down-regulate recruitment of the opposite side core in the sagittal plane.
- Pelvic floor: Part of the intrinsic unit, tightness, overworking, weakness, sub-optimal positioning, digestive function, organ issues, urinary control, all influence core function.
- Mobility limitations in general: Can affect the ability of core muscles to load, reducing their role ability to react to movement (limited hip mobility, and spine segmental mobility in at least one of three planes is fairly safe to assume…).
You cannot change that which you are not yet aware of. Do you know which roadblocks could be in your path?
Sometimes, just cultivating awareness and openness to change is all it takes to make a shift. Other times, it is necessary to seek guidance from a movement coach or therapist to help you. NeuroKinetic Therapy (TM) practitioners and Anatomy in Motion folks are trained to discover and unwind these compensatory strategies (but so can most good therapists of any background).
5. CORE SEMANTICS
As a writer, I appreciate the power of words, and I know a lot of you do, too. But the correlation between core training and the words we traditionally use to talk about it in dance is particularly interesting. And in major need of change.
“Core semantics” shape our results, and require a consideration equal to the physical training itself, as we speak to ourselves and guide others as dancers, teachers, therapists, and parents.
In the table below, which column sounds more useful? Which sounds more like dance? Which choice of vocabulary will you apply to your “core training”?
On the left, words we use that limit potential movement by asking dancers to contract muscles, and on the right, words we can consider using to encourage dancers to move, allow muscles to lengthen, and explore new ranges of motion. A different perspective on “core training” for some folks, perhaps.
DEDICATE 30 DAYS TO EXPLORING YOUR CORE:
Ready to commit yourself to figuring out this “core” thing? I’ve got just the thing for you:
Sign up for the next free 30 day Restore Your Core Challenge. You’ll learn to master one concept and exercise each week through exploration of the “core concepts”, exercise video tutorials, and community support. Join our tribe of stronger dancers and learn how taking a few minutes each day to unlock the power of your “core” can transform the way you move and feel. Totally free. Find out what could change if you dedicated a few minutes each day to unravelling your core. We do these challenges LIVE, together, every July, October, January, and April.
I suppose if you had to take just one thing away from this article it would be that core training is really just a result of allowing your body to explore movement and breath so it can do what it needs to do when it needs to do it.
Need to lift something heavy? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Need to balance on one leg for 30 seconds? Make sure you have access to all ranges of motion necessary to do that and understand how to breathe for that situation.
Simple as that. Maybe too simple. But simple does not mean easy.
Funny how just by allowing you body to move into ranges of motion that have been denied or avoided, breathing appropriately for the situation, using a more helpful choice of words, and getting some help when you get stuck the “core” just kind of takes care of itself without much time and energy spent on “training the abs”.
For more information on unconventional/sensible ways of training for dance, check out Dance Stronger: A multi-media resource created to help you understand the why and how of training breath, movement, and strength to improve dance performance and reduce soreness. Available by donation, so no excuses 😉 Get training!